October 2018 - can't see the wood for the cows

Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust woodland ranger carrying out some woodland management work

Trying different techniques for woodland conservation is an important part of active management and getting the right balance to allow a range of species to thrive. Tim our Woodland Ranger talks in more detail about some cattle grazing in the Tarell Valley and the reason for wanting the cows to do their thing.

Woodland management, a hungry business

Recently we decided to trial some woodland grazing with cattle at a couple of different sites in the Tarell Valley in the central Brecon Beacons. We are hoping to break up the dominance of plants that are quick to colonise the ground and create a thatch layer preventing anything else from getting started. It’s a slight balancing act, too much of one thing isn’t great for a balanced and diverse range of species as you will find reading on.

First up, I will introduce the core workers in these trials. We are very fortunate to be able to work with our neighbouring tenant farm and their herd of Blue Grey cattle. The Blue Greys are a cross between a Whitebred Shorthorn bull (for its good meat properties) and a Galloway cow (for its hardiness). The end result is a good sturdy cow that can produce a calf suitable for market whilst thriving on lower quality grazing; they are happy to graze rougher pasture than other breeds. They are great for conservation grazing as their impact is less selective and intense than using sheep.

If you walk in the central Brecon Beacons you have probably seen these cows as they spend most of their time on Y Gyrn drifting between Coed Carno and the Storey Arms area to help with conservation grazing up there. In late autumn they come off the hill to lowland pasture and the sheds for the winter which allowed us to grab the opportunity for a little more work from them.

In they go

We let a few into an area of old wood pasture that was fenced off in 2009 as part of its restoration. Previously this area merged into one larger field with a high concentration of trees in the upper half where it met with the hill boundary. We fenced off the upper half to reduce the grazing pressure and allow the trees to recover from root trampling, bark stripping and canopy grazing. This also allowed self-seeded saplings to thrive as they are normally the sweetest and most nutritious to livestock. However, during this time and without any management the grass has become long and rank and started to create an impenetrable thatch that nothing else could grow through.

Blue Grey cattle grazing a wood pasture in the Tarrell Valley
Some of the Blue Grey cattle used for a woodland grazing trial in the Tarell Valley, Brecon Beacons, Wales
Blue Grey cattle grazing a wood pasture in the Tarrell Valley

The answer to this problem is in the name; this is a wood pasture and after time to recover it was ready to be grazed. Cows were the obvious choice for this rougher ground as sheep wouldn’t target the areas we wanted grazed. The Blue Greys were perfect as they are far more comfortable grazing coarse pasture. The outcome resulted with the thatch of the old grass being broken along with the ground's surface, giving more opportunities for new plants to get in with minimal impact on the trees.

The end result, more opportunities for new plants to thrive
The end result after the Blue Grey cattle grazed some wood pasture in the Tarrell Valley, Brecon Beacons, Wales
The end result, more opportunities for new plants to thrive

More grazing to be had

Next stop for 15 of the cows after scanning (they’re all in calf) was Coed Carno. This is an old hill boundary woodland, heavily used as winter pasture until it was fenced off in the 1980’s and a site we worked in during 2008/2009 to remove a lot of the conifers that were part of an experimental crop by the previous owners. The clearings left behind have gradually been taken over by bracken, bramble or both which also creates a thick layer, shading out everything underneath and creating conditions that favour only themselves as they stretch their hold across the woodland. Bramble isn’t a bad thing, it does provide plenty of cover and food in a structured woodland of many layers from floor to canopy. Currently though it is preventing the trees from getting through and leaving us with just scrub. Hopefully this grazing will create the ideal conditions to allow plants, such as bluebells, back in that already thrive in the more established parts of the wood.

Blue Grey cattle released into Coed Carno
Blue Grey cattle released into Coed Carno for grazing to allow plants to thrive in the Tarell Valley, Brecon Beacons, Wales
Blue Grey cattle released into Coed Carno

The advantage of using cows in the woods to control this understorey rather than intervention by us and brushcutting with machines, is that the cows also help break up the root structure of the bracken and bramble. This helps impede any regrowth as well opening up the soil crust for seeds from surrounding trees to grow.

This isn’t an artificial quick fix to get rid of what we don’t want, it's more a management of what would have been the natural balance. Cows are very happy as woodland animals but it is the fences that have prevented them from grazing these areas that have been able to develop. We are now using the fences as a way of allowing these wooded areas just enough grazing, as with everything, moderation is the best thing for a good balance.

It has also been a good opportunity to work with our tenant as it has relieved grazing pressures on the fields, allowing them to rest, as well as reducing fodder requirements due to the additional grazing.

From grazing cattle to a more general overview of countryside management, come back for a look at what else goes on and how we manage the many sites within the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire team.